JOHN CAGE: 1912-1992

© by Peter Gena, 1992.

"Remember, it's always someone else who dies," reads Marcel Duchamp’s epitaph.

I first heard these words nearly two decades ago in a conversation with John Cage after he delivered an insightful lecture on Duchamp. Cage died on August 12 in New York City after suffering a stroke the previous evening. He would have been 80 in less than a month. There was no funeral service, no memorial.

The son of an inventor, John Milton Cage Jr. was born in Los Angeles on September 5, 1912. Appropriately, he considered himself not a composer, but rather an inventor of sounds. As a young man he avoided the conventional pursuit of a career. He dropped out of Pomona college after being dismayed that everyone in class was expected to read the same book. During the depression he went door-to-door selling lectures on art and music to housewives. Throughout his life, he assimilated the new and old ideas of many of the world's greatest thinkers, including Thoreau, Meister Eckhart, Erik Satie, Gertrude Stein, Joyce, D. T. Suzuki, McLuhan, Coomaraswamy, Artaud, and Buckminster Fuller. He charted an aesthetic course through the twentieth century that touched everything in its path, often stirring controversy, but always provoking serious thought. He composed works that have not merely taken up from where his mentors left off, but have pressed onward to demystify music by freeing sound, by stripping away hierarchy and regimentation, and by removing influence and choice. He eschewed efficacy by letting sounds be themselves—no event was to be superior or subordinate to any other.

Cage consolidated what became known as the tenets of modernism and post-modernism in his music and writings, as well as in his etchings, drawings, and watercolors. By asking questions rather than dictating solutions, he predated the ideas of the now trendy deconstructivists by some 30 years. His "writings through" Thoreau and Joyce often took on a quality of semiotic reduction. His growth as an artist showed an incessant drive to eliminate exclusivity of choice, thereby promoting an all-inclusive environment. He freed the elements of art not through gimmick, as many of his detractors have suggested, but by intense discipline and hard work. He never said anything goes, but advocated purposeful purposelessness. He showed us how the wholeness of life experience incorporated in his work a pluralism not only of styles through singular art forms, but encompassed his interests including music, theater, literature, dance, the visual arts, media-arts, mycology, macrobiotic cooking, chess, and horticulture.

Cage served as a catalyst to the artists who were in contact with him from the beginning (Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff) as well as to those of more recent generations. His constant experiments, and his refusal to accept boundaries of what can and cannot be done, have given us permission to continue to do our own work. He always felt that when it appeared that an idea of his was about to gain acceptance, it was necessary to move on to something else. Despite increasing demands on his time, he kept his telephone number listed in the public directory and answered all of his mail, maintaining that it was his responsibility. In March, during his last visit to Chicago, he remarked on his own prolificacy. His wonderfully infectious laugh was silent, as not to impose on anyone. No composer in New York was more interested in the music of others than Cage. He was often found sitting among the audiences of concerts all over town. True, his legacy will always be here through his work, ideas and exuberance for life, but now there is a void that humanity can never fill.

Duchamp was wrong. On that Wednesday afternoon John took a part of all of us with him.

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